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The NYU Cinema Research Institute brings together innovators in film and media finance, production, marketing, and distribution to imagine and realize a new future for artist-entrepreneurs. 


Community vs. Blob

Claire Harlam

I've written plenty here about innovative and exciting platforms for independent film distribution and/or discovery (plenty enough to make at least myself and probably you repulsed by the words Innovative, Exciting, Platform, Distribution, And/Or, and/or Discovery). I've also written a lot here about how few of these platforms actually deliver on their promises to connect filmmakers and fans. My CRI project is about this connection, about community--defining it, understanding why it is a critical component of the online ecosystem for filmmakers, and studying the attempts that startups and institutions have made to build and address it. Community is critical because if it isn't there, than it really doesn't matter if your film is. Is a good library enough to draw community? Recognizable and trustworthy curators? Interaction? Involvement? Empowerment? I think it's some kind of combination of all of the above, with an emphasis on everything that came after "good library." Which is not to say that the quality of content doesn't matter in the online ecosystem. Of course it does. And there are enough quality films not getting (or not getting enough out of) traditional, theatrical distribution to populate a robust online ecosystem. Rather, online communities want an ontologically online experience--they want a unique kind of empowering involvement that does not exist in an offline world. And so some excited rambling about two organizations (a bootstrap startup and a leading institute) that are tackling the community question in truly Innovative And/Or Exciting ways:

One of the platforms I've been researching that I think is killing it is Seed&Spark, (whose COO (and my Tisch classmate) Liam Brady is using the platform to seed and spark his film, FOG CITY). Emily Best, founder and CEO of the company, writes that she "founded Seed&Spark to allow indie filmmakers to leverage this WishList crowd-funding method specifically to build and grow their collaboration with their audiences for the entire life-cycle of a film," because "...when you activate the imaginations of your broader community, you set off a chain of actions, reactions and connections the result of which can push the boundaries of your film beyond what you imagined." The "WishList" to which she refers is essentially a wedding registry for an independent film. Best first experimented with the WishList idea for her film LIKE THE WATER:

What we came to call the "WishList" rendered our filmmaking process transparent to our community and sparked their imaginations. They started coming up with ways to get involved we hadn't imagined. They became deeply meaningful collaborators in the film who then lined up – literally – around the block to see the film when it was finished. ... When both you and your supporter can name the material contribution they made to your film, you both understand your supporter’s importance beyond the number of dollars they contributed. And they should feel important because they are.

Best understands that a community needs to be empowered and thus feel important in order to thrive. So many brands spend so many corporate dollars trying to create online communities and make them feel important. But this is a difficult verging on deceptive task since the individuals who comprise these "communities" are ultimately as important as any other individuals from like demographics. For an independent film, however, individual supporters are actually important because they can, as Best points out and as Seed&Spark allows, contribute uniquely to that film's actualization. I have $50 to donate, you have a car to rent cheaply, he has c-stands to lend, etc. It's kind of beautiful how the needs of an independent film and its online community align like this. All independent films depend to some degree on the good will of communities--local communities, friends, family and peers of the filmmaking team, etc. And a community by definition thrives on supporting its members (that's why it's a community and not a nebulous blob of loners). Seed&Park offers online tools to facilitate this good will and thus connect filmmakers and fans in a profound and uniquely online way.

The Sundance Institute has announced that its Artist Services program will expand its suite of digital tools through partnerships with Tugg, Vimeo, Reelhouse, and VHX. These partners join Kickstarter, GoWatchIt, TopSpin Media, as well as the usual retailer suspects. The above hyperlinked IFP release as well as this IndieWire article provide information on these platforms, and I've also written about several of them on this blog. Artist Services is further partnering with other organizations which will select filmmakers to share Artist Services privileges with Sundance alumni. The organizations are: The Bertha Foundation, BRITDOC, Cinereach, Film Independent, the Independent Filmmaker Project and the San Francisco Film Society.

It is clear that the Sundance Institute is committed through Artist Services to exploring the community component of the online independent filmmaking ecosystem. Between their retail partners (iTunes, Hulu, Netflix etc.), and the partner platforms that help filmmakers strategize their direct-to-fan distribution and marketing (TopSpin, VHX, Reelhouse), #AS is providing their filmmakers a pretty robust toolkit for self-distribution. By additionally partnering with platforms like Tugg and Vimeo, #AS is acknowledging that an engaged community is as important as quality marketing or visible shelf-space. Tugg directly involves and thus empowers its community to bring the films they want to see to their local theater. Despite their nascent experiments with monetization, Vimeo is essentially a community of people who make videos and people who watch them. Although YouTube's community is bigger (like hundreds of millions bigger), Vimeo's superior user-interface/experience, profile customization, and opportunities for discovery (staff picks, categories, etc.) make it feel like a prettier, comfier, more tight-knit community. (There are other differences, of course.) However it stacks up against its opponent, Vimeo is indisputably a community, not a tool for direct to fan strategizing. Artist Services does not end its suite of tools at direct to fan strategizing platforms because tools that empower communities are as vital to a film's self-distributed success.

I'd like to believe that we are in fact being wired together, not apart, but I also think that there's space and time for both the movies we watch together in theaters and the ones we watch alone on personal screens (as long as they're at least 13 inches or so). Personal feelings about the anthropological impacts of online connection aside, the independent filmmaking and loving community is very real and very capable of helping each other make and discover movies online. To me, online community means a collection of real individuals that make real things happen via the Internets (online communities fund films; online nebulous blobs produce analytics). To different platforms, community means different things. Some don't need it (Netflix) and others can't live without it (anything I've written about here). I'm interested in online tools that by virtue of being online tools help a widespread group of like-minded people come together and Seed, Spark, Kickstart, Gathr, and Tugg stuff--tools that empower our community.